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Keep Thanksgiving Leftovers Safe

Leftovers need to be correctly handled. Here are answers to Thanksgiving leftover questions, which will keep your Thanksgiving feast leftovers as safe as they are delicious!

How long can you leave your Thanksgiving dinner on the table before running the risk of it spoiling? The danger zone, where harmful bacteria multiply the fastest, is between 41 and 135°F. If you are keeping some dishes hot while you wait for the turkey to be done or guests to arrive, the heat must be high enough to keep the internal temperature at 135°F or higher.

Once you set food out at room temperature, you want to store leftovers within a maximum of two hours (1 hour in temperatures above 90°F) of cooking. Divide leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerate or freeze them in covered shallow containers so they quickly cool.

The USDA recommends discarding any leftovers that have been at room temperature more than two hours. This is because the temperature of the food has most likely been in the food danger zone for too long and allowed bacteria to rapidly reproduce and contaminate the food.

Should you let food come to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator? No. The sooner you refrigerate leftovers, the better. The faster leftovers can cool means they spend less time in the Food Danger Zone (41°F to 135°F).

What’s the best way to store leftovers? Divide leftovers into smaller wrapped portions or in clean, covered shallow containers. This allows the leftovers to reach cooler, safer temperatures more quickly. Store each dish in its own container to avoid cross-contamination. Avoid overstocking the refrigerator to allow cool air to circulate freely.

Sending leftovers home with guests is a great way to minimize the amount of refrigerator or freezer space needed by the host. However, the two-hour rule still applies, but travel time now needs to be factored into the situation. If guests taking leftovers will take a long time to get home and push food past the two hour mark, ask them beforehand to come prepared with their own cooler and ice packs.

How long can leftovers keep in the refrigerator? Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to four days according to the USDA. This means you have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to eat all those delicious leftovers or place them in the freezer to enjoy later. According to the FDA Food Code, all perishable foods that are opened or prepared should be thrown out after 7 days, maximum. No leftovers should survive in your fridge for longer than that. Some foods should be even be thrown away before the 7 day mark.

I’ve found food stuck in the back of my refrigerator and asked myself, “How long has that been there?” If you don’t remember how long it has been there, remember the old adage, “when in doubt, throw it out!” Never rely on your nose, eyes, or taste buds to judge the safety of food. Label and date leftovers to help identify the contents and to ensure they are not stored too long.

When freezing, use heavy-duty foil and/or freezer-appropriate containers and bags; wrap items tightly and in a double layer to maintain moisture and prevent freezer burn. Frozen leftovers should be eaten within six months. After this period, it is not safety that suffers; only quality as the food will become more susceptible to freezer burn.

Thaw frozen leftovers in the refrigerator or the microwave. Place the container or platter on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to avoid leakage on other foods during thawing. It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing. Consume or cook the leftovers immediately after they have thawed.

When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through. Reheat sauces, soups, and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil.

Sometimes there are leftover “leftovers.” It is safe to refreeze any food remaining after reheating previously frozen leftovers to the safe temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer.

A lack of understanding of proper food safety leads to many cases of illnesses each year during the holidays. After cooking, don’t be tempted to cut corners when storing leftovers. Preparing ahead of time can make safe storage of leftovers easy.


  •; U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS); USDA
turkey with brussel sprouts and carrots

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University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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